Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon: The Intersection

"The Intersection"
Jeremiah 2: 4-13; Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 28, 2016

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord:

What wrong did your ancestors find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?

They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that no one passes through,
where no one lives?’

I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.

The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.

Therefore once more I accuse you,
says the Lord,
and I accuse your children’s children.
Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.

Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.
- Jeremiah 2: 4-13

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence,

‘The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?’

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
- Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16

There is an intersection where two roads cross. At this intersection the flat Mississippi Delta spans for miles and miles. A car approaches this intersection with three young men; all prison escapees. Their names are Everett, Pete, and Delmar. You may remember them from the movie, “O Brother Where Art Thou” (2000). They stop as Tommy Johnson asks if they are going past Tishomingo and Tommy hops in the back seat to catch a ride.

Everett is driving and does all the introductions and then Pete asks Tommy why he was standing at the roadside in the middle of nowhere. Tommy replies “I had to be there at the crossroads just before midnight to sell my soul to the devil.”

Everett chimes in, “Well ain’t it a small world, spiritually speaking! Pete and Delmar here were just baptized and saved. I guess I am the only one that remains unaffiliated.” Pete, still wet behind the ears with baptismal water, replies “This ain’t no laughing matter Everett.”

So Everett stands in check and asks, “Tommy, what did you get for selling your soul to the devil?” Tommy replied, “He told me to play this guitar here real good.” Pete said, “Oh son, for that you traded your everlastin’ soul?” And Tommy just shrugged his shoulders and answered, “Well, I wasn’t using it.”

Like this scene, Jeremiah describes how the people of God had also come to a barren intersection in their communal lives. At this intersection they had forgotten God’s story. Jeremiah says, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me?” (Jeremiah 2:5). Of course the question implies a negative answer. God did nothing wrong.

Over the generations God led our spiritual ancestors through the wilderness. Even as they felt lost in their forty years of wandering from Egypt, God always led the way. God’s deliverance in the book of Exodus is a hallmark story because God’s grace changes things. God’s grace led the people from oppression to freedom (Exodus 6:6-8). God’s grace was a light shining in the darkest days (Exodus 13:21-22). God’s grace was like life-giving water in the desert even when the people complained (Exodus 17:5-7). God’s grace provided a place to find a sense of identity, belonging, a hope, and a future (Exodus 15:13).

But over the generations the people and the religious leaders had shifted the focus of their spiritual eyes. They stopped looking for God (Jeremiah 2:6, 8). Instead of following the path that God was still creating on the highway of faith, the people turned onto a secondary road to follow other things.

And Jeremiah says, “My people have changed their glory for something that does not profit” (Jeremiah 2:11). God’s people had exchanged their reverence for God’s amazing grace for something that would not benefit them or give what they needed to thrive. So as the people lost touch with God’s story they replaced God with other things, other gods, other idols. Jeremiah recognizes that God’s people have gotten lost along the way.

Throughout our lifetimes we all will experience a time of getting lost. It is a part of being human. What we allow our hearts and minds to focus on often influences our next steps along the path of life.

When we focus on the fear of not having enough we shift from having an attitude of gratitude and generosity to greed. When we perceive the grass is greener on the other side then we forget to nurture and water the spot where our feet are already planted. When we tell ourselves that more money will bring happiness then we forget how to be content with what we have been given. When we believe that we will never fall to the temptations of the world then we deny our own vulnerability. When we pride ourselves on being self-sufficient then we forget to depend upon God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Fear, coveting, greed, denial, and pride cause us to lose our way as we take our spiritual eyes off God.

But there is another lostness that we may experience too. It is when we feel like we are standing in the middle of nowhere. This barren crossroads in the wilderness can be scary and isolating. We find ourselves overwhelmed by the brokenness we are experiencing. Sometimes we do not even know how we have arrived here. The compass of our faith feels shattered and we truly do not know what road or which direction will lead us out to a better place. It is tempting to stop looking for God when nothing seems to change. It is tempting to just stop believing. It happened to Israel and it easily happens to us too.

You have heard me mention Barbara Brown Taylor a time or two in the past. Taylor is a former Episcopal priest, a religious professor at Piedmont College in Georgia, an adjunct professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, an author, and a speaker. Taylor always has a way with words and this is what she says about getting lost:

Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure. When we fall ill, lose our jobs, wreck our marriages, or alienate our children, most of us are left alone to pick up the pieces. Even those of us who are ministered to by brave friends can find it hard to shake the shame of getting lost in our lives. And yet, if someone asked us to pinpoint the times in our lives that changed us for the better, a lot of those time would be wilderness times.

As you and I find ourselves at the various intersections in life – the chaotic and disillusioned ones, the barren ones in the middle of nowhere, or the ones that press us to make a big decision – there is one important question that faith moves us to ask. That question is this: where is God?

So stand at this intersection – this crossroads – and look behind you and consider where God has been in your life. What situation in your past has God delivered you from? When did God shine the light of hope into your darkness? What did God’s life-giving water taste like when it quenched your thirst that nothing else could satisfy? How did God move you to follow and trust God a little more? Where is God still at work to clear a way forward in the messiness of life?

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of remembering the story of where God has been in our lives. It matters.

It empowers our faith to guide us through the wilderness to experience places of redemption and wholeness. It is a heritage of faith we pass down to our children to shape their identity in Christ. It is a lived experience we share with others to offer encouragement and hope. It is a window of seeing and learning where God is active in other people’s lives and gives us a sense of awe and wonder.

Not only does remembering God’s story reassure us of God’s faithfulness but it also gives us the courage to look down the road ahead into tomorrow’s uncertainty and say with a growing conviction, “The Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid.” Remembering God’s story guides us through the next intersection by the right road even when we stumble and get lost.

While each of us has a unique and different story to tell of God’s deliverance, God’s promises do not change.

God promises to break down our fears with God’s abundant love and hospitality (Romans 8:31-32). God promises to nurture us where we are so that we might thrive (Isaiah 58:11). God promises to provide and give us our daily bread (Mathew 6:11). God promises to meet us where we are and share our vulnerabilities (Romans 8:26-27). God promises a steadfast love that we can always depend on (Psalm 89:1-2). We see the fullness of God’s promises take shape in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Later on in Jeremiah God says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29: 11-13).

As you step back out into the world today I want you to do three things. First, notice the spiritual intersection of where you stand along the journey of faith. Second, look back into the past days, weeks, and years and remember the story of God’s presence in your life. And third, as you look down the uncertain roads ahead, ask which direction God is leading you to give you a future hope.

May the Spirit continue leading us by the right road.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Source Referenced:

Barbara Brown Taylor, “An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: Harper One, 2009), p. 78.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon: Do Not Say

"Do Not Say"
Jeremiah 1: 4-10; 1 Corinthians 12: 4-10
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 21, 2016

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’

Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’

But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’
- Jeremiah 1: 4-10

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 1 Corinthians 12: 4-10

Before Jeremiah was formed in the womb, God knew the gifts which would be bestowed upon him. We are truly fearfully and wonderfully made as the psalmist says (Psalm 139: 14). Jeremiah has the nickname of the Weeping Prophet. He came alongside the people of God during a traumatic time in their history. Jeremiah was given the gift of words to help the people articulate their painful experience.

But Jeremiah also received the gift of prophecy. He came from a lineage of priests so maybe this was no surprise to his family. It was a tough job of being God’s mouth piece. The prophets said some challenging words to move the people from places of unfaithfulness to follow God in deeper commitment. I am not sure any individual would jump at the chance to be a prophet. While it is an honored office in serving the Lord, it is not a popular one when you are hanging out with the people and bringing words of woe and judgment held in the tension of God’s grace.

And so at a very young age God speaks in a very strong affirmation for Jeremiah to follow God’s leading in this very particular way. Jeremiah’s response is so realistic and it is one you and I can identify with. Jeremiah replies with a painful interjection, “Ah, Lord God! I don’t know how to do this! I am too young! I am just a boy” (Jer 1: 6).

Looking back into the Good Book, when God called Noah to build the ark and Abraham to go to the land of God’s promises they both did so without question (Genesis 6:22; 12:4). Somehow the human mold has broken because folks are not made like that anymore! As the history of our spiritual ancestors moved along, God’s call was met with some push back.

Jacob wrestled with God when he was called to face the conflict with his brother Esau (Genesis 32:24). Moses had a thousand reasons to get out of God’s call to lead the people into freedom. Moses said, “Who am I that I should go?” (Exodus 3:11). “What if the people don’t believe me?” (Exodus 4:1). “I don’t have eloquent words” (Exodus 4:10). Moses even said, “God please send someone else!” (Exodus 4:13). When God called Gideon to be a mighty warrior, he cowered in weakness and then asked God to show a sign to prove he was to go” (Judges 6:15, 17). When God called Isaiah to be a prophet his first reply was that he was not worthy enough (Isaiah 6: 5).

I will never forget the day I began to feel God’s call. I was an active church member and a leader of small group ministry. One particular April morning ten years ago I had a lot on my heart. I loved being a stay at home mom raising my two young daughters, who were at that time ages 3 and 5. I loved being a participant in Bible studies. I loved leading a small group for moms. I loved serving the church. I loved coming alongside others to hold the hard parts of life. But that particular morning as I was putting my youngest in the car I had a little conversation with God. “God tell me what are you doing through all of this in my life? What do you want from me? Where does all of this lead?” I can hear my mom say, "You should be careful what you pray for."

Later that very morning I ran into my pastor in the church mail room. He stopped me to talk a bit. And then he asked me a question. “When are you going to seminary?” I just looked at him like a deer in headlights. “What do you mean? Do you think I should go to seminary?” I asked. He just smiled at me and said, “Yes I do. You have a pastor’s heart and you need to go.” We talked more in that mail room. And when I left that conversation I thought that I was going to throw up.

Three days later I flew to Saint Paul, Minnesota for a week-long conference for small group leadership training. The entire conference was held in a beautiful hotel. Hundreds of people attended, both pastors and church leaders alike. Every day someone asked me if I was a pastor. It was weird. As I talked with other young clergy and listened to their call stories they sounded familiar to me. I thought maybe God is calling me. I felt sick with each thought.

That sick feeling I had was a two-sided emotion. I was terrified of taking the next step to follow God. I did not fully know what would be required of me or if I could really do what God was asking. I had plenty of excuses like Moses and Jeremiah. It was a big decision to pull up roots to go to seminary and possibly ordained ministry with a husband and young children. I said God, I don’t think I can do this. God, there are no ministers in my family. God I am not worthy enough to do this. And when it came time to preach I just said - God, please send someone else.

But I was also excited to discern just where God might take my gifts to intersect the needs of the world. I did want a theological education but I really had not imagined myself as a pastor. Doug and I prayed about it for one year. And with all of the questions and all the queasy anxiety, we had a peace about saying yes to God. We did not know how it would all work out, but God has indeed led us one step at a time over the past ten years. And when the road gets rough and even when I fail, God is always there to help.

When Jeremiah pushed back against God’s call, God said, “Do not say I am only a boy” (Jer 1:7). Do not say I am too young. Do not say I am unqualified. Do not say I do not know enough. Do not say I don’t have the right words. Do not say I can’t do that.

The Apostle Paul assures us “There are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12: 4-7).

Not everyone is called to be a prophet or a pastor. But God does have a calling on each and every person’s life. The Spirit discloses to you and to me some gift of being with God and others that gives us a sense of joy in serving God. That joy is not merely happiness; it is a keener awareness of God’s grace.

That gift might be the ability to offer words of wisdom and encouragement out there in the world – on the sports field, at work, or at the post office. Maybe you have the gift of teaching at home, in schools, in the neighborhood Bible study or here at church. Maybe you have gifts of healing to serve in the medical field. Maybe you have the gift of discernment when it comes making decisions. Maybe you have the gift of music or creativity with dance, art or writing. Maybe you have the gift of empathy which gives others a shoulder to lean on. Maybe you have the gift of mercy and you can sit with that grieving friend in long moments of silence. God gives us many gifts and activities so that God’s glory might shine through us and bring about the common good of the kingdom.

Right now maybe God is nudging you to do a new thing in your life to hone your unique gifts. Or maybe right now you are reflecting back when you first felt God call you to serve in a very particular way. Our first response is usually feeling terrified and anxious.

Author Marianne Robinson says this word of encouragement:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

God knew each of us before we were formed in the womb. God knows the gifts which will be bestowed upon each of us. God knows the right timing to help us hone these God-given abilities. God will show us the next right step even when we fail. God is the only one that already knows our fullest potential to shine the Light of Christ and encourage others in the power of Holy Spirit.

When you begin to feel God nudging, then listen to the whispers of the Spirit. Do not make yourself small and immediately say, “God I am just ________.”

Do not let fear or unworthiness or insecurity paralyze you. Keep a healthy sense of humility for it reminds us that God alone equips us when God calls us to do a new thing or the same thing in a new way. Your baptism and the claim God has upon your life is sufficient for your calling.

God always has the last word in these situations. And God says, “Do not be afraid of what I am asking you to do today. Do not be afraid of where I am sending you. Pray. Trust. Confide in others for discernment. But know...know with your head and your heart that I am with you to deliver you” (adapted from Jeremiah 1:8).

May it be so for us.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Source Referenced:
Marianne Williamson, "A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of 'A Course in Miracles'" (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).

Monday, August 15, 2016

Sermon: In His Hands

"In His Hands"
Isaiah 5: 1-7; Luke 12: 49-56 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 14, 2016

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
- Isaiah 5: 1-7

‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
- Luke 12: 49-56

The prophet Isaiah paints a poetic picture. God has the whole world in his hands as we sang in our previous hymn. The people of God are imaged as a vineyard and God is singing a song of deep and abiding love over them. God’s hands are certainly bigger than we can imagine. They hold the people of God with great care.

God’s hands dig deep into the spiritual earth with great joy to prepare a fertile ground for the hopes and dreams of this great vineyard. Isaiah says God’s hands created rows, fenced boundaries, and cleared the foreseen obstacles for the vineyard to grow and thrive. And then the spiritual soil was ready to receive the finest seeds that would produce the richest fruit. God creates out of a lavish love and desires for the vineyard to bear good fruit.

And then God takes two more steps in hopes that God’s dream is sustainable. God built a watch tower in the midst of the vineyard as a reminder that God is a trusted refuge. God invites a sense of community for others to keep watch in the tower to participate in discerning the vineyard’s needs and vitality. And last a wine vat was placed for the community to taste and see the abundance of good fruit coming forth.

This image of God’s hands as a master gardener recalls to my mind humankind’s story in Genesis with God forming our beginning from the dust. God shaped humanity from the clay of the earth and breathed new life into us (Genesis 2:7). God planted a garden in Eden for humanity to live in relationship with God (Genesis 2:8). Even as God looked at the work of God’s hands and called it good, we remember our spiritual parents sowed wild seeds of disobedience and crossed the boundaries of God’s will (Genesis 3: 1-7). At that moment our story to seek God’s redemption began.

History always has a way of repeating itself. As God’s heart and hands joyfully prepared for another garden of rich fruit in Isaiah's communal vineyard, the fine and rich seeds grew wild. Instead of fruit that bore justice and righteousness (doing right and living in right relationships with God and one another), the fruit bore oppression and cries of despair.

Instead of the fruit growing upwards into the Creator’s lavish and unconditional love, the fruit’s disobedience prevented it from reaching its potential. The Creator looked at the creation of wild grapes and instead of hearing God say, “It is good,” Isaiah says God was disappointed and heartbroken. God says, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?

When I was a child and growing up there was only one thing that would stop me in my tracks when I had not lived by the house rules. It was not a time out. It was not being grounded. That one thing was to hear my father say that I had disappointed him. When these moments happened my dad would take me aside to talk and he would always speak in a loving voice. Sitting in that space made me sad to know that my actions hurt others and hurt him. But that space always encouraged me to do better next time. Isaiah’s vineyard parable creates a space for us to reflect on the ways our broken human condition needs a pathway towards forgiveness and redemption.

While you and I still miss the mark sometimes, even as we experience disappointments, even as we sow wild seeds that hurt ourselves, others, and God we come into God’s House to be assured that we are still held in God’s hands. Later on in the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks of the way in which God turns this vineyard around with the promise of salvation (Isaiah 27: 1-6). God’s voice sings over this vineyard once again for the Lord is its keeper. God guards it day and night so that no one can harm it. God sings for the vineyard to cling to God for protection for this vineyard will fill the whole world with fruit.

Today as we come to the Table we are reminded once again of God’s promise of salvation. The lavish love of God put on the vulnerability of humanity in Jesus Christ to meet us where we are. In doing so, God fashioned a new hope that we might truly experience the very hands and heart of God in life giving ways. Christ came and lived among us to be an example of how to grow more fully into God’s intentions.

Christ’s hands care for all of God’s children with compassion that comes alongside us with hope. Christ’s heart guides us to approach each day in a new commitment to follow God’s ways. Christ’s feet lead us on the path to do what is right for the sake of right relationships that encourage us in God’s love. Christ’s example breaks down the walls that we build to compartmentalize our life and faith. Christ urges our faith to touch every aspect of our lives - our relationships and commitments - so that our families, our work, and our spirits are united in God’s hopes and dreams to bear nothing but good fruit.

Today as we gather around God’s Table of lavish love and hospitality I want you to imagine the very hands of God.

As we break the bread of life reflect where has God been nurturing your spirit? When have you heard God singing a song of joy in your heart? Where are you hungry to experience God’s presence?

As we take the cup of salvation reflect upon the places of your own spiritual soil that seem parched and dry. What in your life has become an obstruction for good fruit to take root and grow? Where might God’s hands break up and remove the disappointing rocks and weeds that are weighing upon your spirit? Where might God’s hands rework your spiritual soil to bring forth new life?

As we break the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation remember the hands of God have been stretched out upon the cross so that our brokenness may be held and reshaped and resurrected by God’s redeeming grace. These hands that hold the whole world with care and compassion create a space for us to acknowledge our brokenness. These hands encourage us to stand tall as the body of Christ and partner with God’s hope to bring about a new kingdom where justice and righteousness are the good fruit for all to taste and see God’s goodness. These hands invite us to be nourished and strengthened by the bread and cup in order to go and bring about this good fruit through and for one another.

He’s got the whole world in his hands. May we sing so others may hear and experience the song of God’s lavish love too.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Sermon: Filling the Gap

"Filling the Gap"
Isaiah 1: 1-3, 10-20; Luke 12: 32-40
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 7, 2016

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.

Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.

When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
- Isaiah 1: 1-3, 10-20

‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Watchful Slaves

‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’
- Luke 12: 32-40

As the words of the prophet begin, I can hear the iconic Law and Order bells ringing the call for justice: Dun Dun. The bells prepare us for a sobering scene of why justice is needed. There is a backstory that leads to a courtroom hearing. Judah has fallen into a cyclical pattern that has been ongoing for generations. It is systemic. Judah moves along the right path for a spell and then falls off the wagon, so to speak. The pressures and influences of the surrounding cultures have long clouded Judah’s judgment and Judah wavers in taking the next right step in faith. Judah lives with the consequences for a while and then prays for deliverance and promises to do better. Throughout the generations God’s people are on the wagon and then off the wagon in habits of faith that help and then habits of unfaithfulness that hurt.

Now Judah has blood on their hands by living in poor decisions and corrupt behavior that has affected the livelihood of the most vulnerable. Judah has turned inward and complacent. Judah has turned a blind eye to being agents of God’s justice. Judah had not loved the stranger for they were once strangers oppressed in Egypt. God’s deliverance called Judah to live in a particular way but their complacency resulted in a corrupted heart.

The camera leaves the streets and pans into the doors of a courtroom. Judah takes the seat of the defendant and squirms in the hard wooden seat. What is so startling is that both the plaintiff’s and judge’s seats behold the voice of Almighty God. The divine plaintiff stands up to address the court and loudly summons heaven and earth as witnesses for this trial. The Jewish tradition held that you need two witnesses and of course heaven and earth had seen it all from the beginning of time. The voice of Almighty God speaks with a broken heart of the defendant’s actions and states the charges that have been filed.

“I have reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me” (Isaiah 1:2). The charge is that “God’s people do not know, they do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3). The people are not being charged for ignorance. The people were being charged with breaking their covenant relationship with God. This covenant through Moses tethered the people to an eternal relationship with God and one another. The people of God have forgotten their raising, as we say in the South. They have forgotten who they are and whose they are. They have forgotten how to live according to God’s grace with a particular intentionality.

You see the problem was this: the religious leaders and the people of God had become beyond complacent in their faith response. Rituals of worship become divorced from the heart of God’s will. Faith was no longer a vessel to pour out God’s just and righteous love into lives outside of the temple that were desperate for change. Judah’s worship lost its relevance to God’s message of hope for a hurting community. The gap was widening between faith that praises God and faith that practices godly ways [1]. When the gap is due to the condition of human sin, God is justified in God’s sentence and blameless when God passes judgment (Psalm 51:4). We said these very words about God’s judgment together in the prayer of confession.

To think of God as a righteous judge makes us squirm in our seats. For years this image of God made me beyond uncomfortable. I would wonder how could I possibly measure up to a God of judgement. I would much rather hear about a God of grace, mercy and love. And yet when we come into God’s presence we are to remember that we are all held within the tension of God’s judgment and God’s grace. The God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. While we may deserve to hear the gavel come down with a harsh sentence as Isaiah hints to, God chooses grace over the gavel. God gives instruction on how to be turned back to God and how to take the next right step.

The next right step is seeking what the Lord requires. Isaiah directs us to hear God’s hope: “Learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend and plead for the most vulnerable – the orphans and the widows” (Isaiah 1:17).

I love the way Micah prophesies it: “What does the Lord require but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). I once taught this verse to children at Vacation Bible School and I broke the meaning down in this way: justice is doing what is right; kindness is more than being nice – it is the love of serving others; and humility is to always give God the credit when we help someone.

What Isaiah and Micah are getting us to think about is this. Taking the next right step means that we all need to do a faith check. We need to see the gap that stands between our praise of God and our practice of God’s ways. And then we need to be focused to fill it. Filling the gap is not an easy thing to do. It takes intentionality and attentiveness. Filling the gap means not just talking the talk but also walking the walk.

During my first call in ministry I served as an Associate Pastor for Young Adults and Outreach. I loved finding ways to intersect life and faith with my young adults. I also loved building relationships with individuals and groups across denominational lines and organizations. I still love this ecumenical aspect of ministry.

One Sunday evening I came alongside a group of young adults and youth to prepare and serve dinner to 50 to 75 guests of the Salvation Army Shelter. Before dinner was served our service team gathered for instructions and prayer. I encouraged our group to welcome our guests with smiles and a warm welcome. Make eye contact. And when everyone is served then go out and sit next to a guest and talk with him or her.

Not all of the Salvation Army dinner guests were homeless. They were also men, women, and children who were trying to make ends meet and needed a hand up for a hot meal. The guests were white, black, and Hispanic too. Some were dressed nicely and some had threadbare clothes and holes in their shoes. Not everyone sitting at the cafeteria tables wanted to talk that night. And not everyone who volunteered to serve dinner felt comfortable walking up to a total stranger and starting up a conversation.

You will never guess what filled the gap that evening. It was Bingo. Good ole fashioned Bingo. As folks were finishing their dinner the youth and young adults disposed of trash and passed out Bingo cards to our guests and volunteers alike. We all came together to sit at the cafeteria style tables. And as the B-5’s and the G-16’s were called, we slowly had folks across the room shouting BINGO! And then came the genuine smiles and giggles.

As the game progressed each Bingo winner was invited to come forward to select a prize from the big basket. The prizes were wrapped in colorful wrapping paper and ribbon. The items ranged from candy to personal hygiene products to small games. One woman came forward to select her item and she just hugged it; glad to have a gift just for her. A man gave his prize to a young child who had not won a game. That night every person seemed to feel the joy of belonging to something bigger than themselves.

And as I watched the game continue, I was amazed that a simple game of Bingo could break down our diverse demographic walls and make each of us feel like and act like children of God. Now Bingo will not solve everything and it will not bring about God’s justice in full force. But on that evening God’s Spirit was present and I felt the kingdom of God break in as we sought to do right by loving our neighbors, serving others, giving God the credit, and seeing Christ in each other’s eyes.

For God justice is an action of love. It is primary in order to bring about God’s intentions for reconciliation, healing, and wholeness. Justice for the weak and vulnerable was of the utmost importance to God for it hinges on who God is. God set his heart in love on our spiritual ancestors alone and chose us out of all the peoples. The Lord our God is mighty and is not partial and takes no bribe. God executes justice for the orphan and the widow and loves the strangers providing them food and clothing.

We also are to express love to these specific neighbors for our spiritual ancestors were once vulnerable strangers in the land of Egypt and God’s compassion delivered them (Deuteronomy 10:15, 17-19). God’s unconditional love put on the thin skin of humanity in Jesus Christ to show us how to be dressed for compassionate action too. Therefore our commitment matters to keep in step with Gods’ dream for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

We fill the gap between our praise of God and practice of faith by seeking to do what is right in the community through the power of relationships. Ask the Spirit to open our eyes to those who are vulnerable in our backyards. Be willing to listen to our neighbor’s stories of what life is like from their unique perspectives. Pray for God to reveal the needs that our gifts can meet with compassion that empowers and strengthens our community.

Maybe justice looks like caring for the widow next door with meals and rides to the doctor. Maybe justice looks like mentoring a child at school who needs help with reading or math and proof that someone cares because no one in his home does. Maybe justice looks like a Bookmobile with storytime, cookies and lemonade, and children who cannot buy books or get to the library are invited to receive a book and the joy of learning in community. Maybe justice looks like dimes that pour out to stop hunger. Maybe justice looks like Bingo where everyone feels a sense of belonging.

Isaiah’s words are sobering. Sometimes Scripture gives us comfort and sometimes it pushes us out of our comfort zones. May you and I take heed to Isaiah’s challenge to see the gaps between our praise and practice as individuals and as a church. Do you know what is at stake for us? The way in which you and I praise and practice God’s unconditional love and compassion. God’s reputation is on the line. And it is our highest calling to reflect God's love in all things. Thankfully Christ shows us the way. So let us go and fill the gap.

In the name of our Father, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

Sources Referenced:
Artwork by Stuart Shelby
[1] Stacey Simpson Duke’s Pastoral Perspective on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 “Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 318.